When Does Career Passion Turn Into Career Obsession?

These types of workplaces encourage career obsession, according to a new study.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 26, 2022

A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences explains why an obsessive form of passion has come to dominate the workplace, even when it has been proven to have negative and maladaptive outcomes for the individual.

"Obsessively passionate people tend to experience more negative emotions, anxiety, and stress, and generally report lower levels of psychological well-being," says lead author Benjamin Schellenberg, a faculty member at the University of Manitoba in Canada. "We wondered why obsessive passion appears to be common in the workplace despite all these negative consequences. We suspected that people believe that, in some types of workplaces, being obsessively passionate is the best way to succeed."

To study this, the researchers conducted a series of studies in which participants imagined themselves in different workplace scenarios such as hiring applicants, applying for a promotion, and working for a new supervisor. In all cases, people indicated that obsessive passion, both in themselves and in others, would lead to greater success in workplaces with a 'bottom-line mentality.'

"Workplaces with a bottom-line mentality are those that focus exclusively on productivity, profits, and performance and pay little attention to everything else, such as employee wellness and personal relationships," explains Schellenberg.

Schellenberg's research shares similarities with the dualistic model of passion — first developed by Dr. Robert Vallerand of the University of Quebec — that distinguishes between harmonious passion and obsessive passion. Both types of passion involve loving an activity and devoting a great deal of time and energy toward it. However, there are important differences, such as:

  • Harmonious passion requires that one pursues an activity with a sense of balance and flexibility
  • Obsessive passion, on the other hand, suggests an overwhelming urge to engage in an activity and to become wholly preoccupied with it

"Although there are some studies that have linked obsessive passion with some adaptive outcomes in specific situations, the evidence strongly supports harmonious passion as being linked with many positive outcomes — well-being, interpersonal relationship quality, positive emotional experiences, etc. — for most people in most situations," says Schellenberg.

If you are someone who finds yourself in a bottom-line mentality workplace that values obsessively passionate people, Schellenberg encourages you to do your best to stay harmoniously passionate.

"A workplace with a bottom-line mentality can be problematic because it can lead employees to attempt to achieve bottom-line outcomes by any means necessary, including cutting corners and other ethically problematic behaviors," states Schellenberg. "But also believing that you need to be obsessively passionate in these types of workplaces can make the problem even worse. Research outside of the workplace has shown that high levels of performance can be attained even when one's passion is predominately harmonious."

A full interview with Dr. Benjamin Schellenberg discussing his new research on obsessive passion can be found here: When does career passion cross the line